Elliott Carter, Selected Vocal Works

Below you will find examples from the major vocal works of Elliott Carter discussed in the print essays of “Elliott Carter: Settings.” With one exception, pieces cover the middle and later periods of Carter’s career, spanning from the 70s to the 00s. The pieces demonstrate Carter’s affinity for poetry from the main lineage of American modernism: Pound, Crane, Zukofsky, Bishop, Ashbery. They are accompanied by brief passages of commentary drawn from the essays in the print edition of “Elliott Carter: Settings.”

Text by Hart Crane
Tony Arnold, soprano; Colorado College Festival Orchestra, conducted by Scott Yoo

From Music of Elliott Carter, Vol. 9 (Bridge 9396)

“That song has a kind of fluid, evolving quality that is like Debussy, although it’ s also like Fauré who was a big influence on Carter at that time. What’s striking is that it has that feeling without sounding like Debussy or Fauré. But if you compare it to the Dickinson songs by Copland written at around the same time, Copland’s are very tight, they’re very closed in. And Carter’ s is very open and it has the suggestion of an epic, open-ended quality. And that’s what the new element is in the song that suits Crane. I had heard rumors at that point about some possible connection between Carter and Crane. I once asked Elliott, Did you ever meet Hart Crane, and he said “no” and that was the end of it. [laughing] Of course Crane was a kind of legendary figure in the New York avant-garde in the 20s and I think it was a kind of New York modernism, I think that was the appeal of it, even though it was just a kind of crazy, Miltonic modernism.”

—David Schiff, from “An Interview with David Schiff”

A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

III. Sandpiper
IV. Insomnia

Text by Elizabeth Bishop

Christine Schadeberg, soprano; Speculum Musicae

From Elliott Carter: The Vocal Works (1975–1981) (Bridge 9014)

“Elizabeth Bishop is the master of Keatsian “negative capability”—the art of being content to remain in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”…. These poems of physical and psychological separation (i.e., “love ” poems) alternate with poems that depict the ways of the world, natural, social, and political (Carter called these six poems “considerations about nature, love, and isolation”)…. The juxtaposition of “Sandpiper” and “Insomnia” (the poem from which the title of the cycle comes) implies a parallel between the artist’s daylight preoccupations and the inverted world (Bishop writes “world inverted”), the looking-glass world of his “night fantasies.” Here “left is always right,” “the shadows are really the body,” and the dream of love is fulfilled. This poem has Carter’s sparest surface: piccolo, violin, viola, and marimba at its glassiest.”

Lloyd Schwartz, from “Elliott Carter and American Poetry”

Syringa (1978)

Katherine Ciesinski, mezzo-soprano; Jan Opalach, bass-baritone; Speculum Musicae

From Elliott Carter: The Vocal Works (1975–1981) (Bridge 9014)

“Syringa seemed to me to open a fresh series of possibilities in the long and often clichéd history of the relationship between words and music—not only possibilities of multiplicity and of effective vocal acts that could not be confined within the grid of speaker and listener, but also possibilities of vocal expression in music that went beyond the mimetic without at the same time receding into abstraction. Syringa did not tell the Orpheus story, nor dramatize it, nor mimic the sounds of its world, but instead realized it in a new medium, half-acoustic and
material, half-reflective. The effect was not to “express” something about Orpheus and Eurydice but to find a musical rendering of the emotional and cultural logic of their story, together with the long, rich history of the story’s retelling. The piece thus seemed to model an aesthetic of art song in which the song recreated the text’s conditions of possibility rather than projecting its emotional aura, or, more exactly, an aesthetic in which the emotional aura arose as an effect, one among many, of that recreation.”

Lawrence Kramer, from “Modern Madrigalisms: Elliott Carter and the Aesthetics of Art Song”

Of Challenge and of Love (1994)
II. Under the Dome
III. Am Klavier

Text by John Hollander

Tony Arnold, soprano; Jacob Greenberg, piano

From Music of Elliott Carter, Vol. 5 (Bridge 9128)

“Irony: if one of its features is doubleness, another implicit but less often remarked upon feature is its simultaneity or synchronization. Saying one thing and meaning another has no special effect if they simply happen in series. That is just changing your mind. Some ironies are achieved by speaking on different channels at the same time, mouthing a platitude and cocking an eyebrow; but some must depend on a succession of words that are nevertheless apprehended together. The pantun activates this problem, observing a clean separation between its sequential parts that makes for a richly dissonant aftermath. Something like that effect—“the resonance of the odd relation, ” as Hollander puts it—could be said to be a fundamental problem for Carter. He has a technical investment in strong rhythmic and harmonic independence, but what matters to him above all is the adding up of musical experience in time, even into the total narrative that the cycle describes.”

Jeff Dolven, from “Disjunct Quatrains”

On Conversing with Paradise (2008)

Text by Ezra Pound, from Cantos 81 and 120

Leigh Melrose, baritone; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Oliver Knussen

From Music of Elliott Carter, Vol. 8 (Bridge 9314A/B)

“The curiosity of the Pound/Carter conjunction is that Carter chooses to seek “harmony and resolution,” using Pound’ s “intransigence, difficulty and contradiction” as a stage to be overcome in the transcendence and transformation of art. One might see this music as emphasizing resolution rather than contradiction; this occurs first in the textual choices Carter made for his libretto from Pound’ s work and second in the musical interpretation proposed by the setting. If Pound’s is “late” work in Said’s terms, Carter’s is even “later” work, emphasizing resolution, not contradiction.”

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, from “Elliott Carter’s Ezra Pound”

Poems of Louis Zukofsky (2008)
III. Finally a Valentine
VIII. Daisy

Text by Louis Zukofsky

Lucy Shelton, soprano; Charles Neidich, clarinet

From Music of Elliott Carter, Vol. 8 (Bridge 9314A/B)

“How does a composer parallel the extreme condensation and energy of Zukofsky’ s “Daisy ”? The answer might be in tempo or speed. Carter begins the piece at a slow, steady pace, but only for the straightforward utterance of the scientific name (Bellis perennis daisy), with the clarinet coming in just after the third word in synch with the soprano. While the clarinet’s pace and density varies little throughout the piece, the vocal line presents an entirely different case. Almost instantly it becomes an accelerated speech-singing, which except for some brief punctuating moments is sustained until the end. The most striking of these punctuating moments occurs at the exact midpoint in the text, on the word “strawberry.” Textually it stands out in terms of its visual/color reference—red suggesting a stop—and musically it acts as a brief respite, suggesting a necessary pause to meditate on the continual stream of sensory data here and in life. Throughout “Daisy” not only does Carter’ s rapid tempo translate verbal condensation into
rhythmic condensation, it animates the potential energy of Zukofsky’s text. Zukofsky’ s polysemy and punning compress multiple references in an instant, and require the reader to unpack them—expanding the flash of the poetic word into the open-ended reading process. In his setting, Carter has created an aid to experiencing the poem. Even without additions, the semantics are best understood in the song.”

Ray Ragosta, from “Textures and Contrasts: Elliott Carter’s Poems of Louis Zukofsky”